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Arts and Culture

USM Has a Copy of Columbus Letter US Gave Back to Italy

PORTLAND, Maine - The same week the U.S. returned an early copy of a letter Christopher Columbus wrote to Italian authorities, the Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine says it holds a copy of the letter.

The explorer wrote the letter five centuries ago to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Osher Map Library Director Ian Fowler says the edition at USM was printed in Basil, Switzerland in 1494, a year after Columbus wrote the letter to his patrons. Fowler says the edition the library holds is one of only 80 copies left.

He says the reason Columbus wrote the letter was that he had come back empty handed after persuading patrons that he could find riches in the east by sailing west. 

"And, you know, he didn't come back with all the gold and riches and the cotton," Fowler says, "and so he had to kind of sell himself and get more money for the next voyage."

U.S. Ambassador John Phillips officially returned an earlier copy of the letter to Italian authorities on Wednesday.  That version was donated to the Library of Congress in 2004 by the estate of its final owner, who did not realize that it had been stolen from a library in Florence and replaced with a forgery.